|Michelangelo. Study for the Battle of Cascina, c. 1504. Black chalk over stylus, 23.5x35.6cm. Galleria deli Uffizi, Florence.|
|Michelangelo. A Battle Scene, c. 1504. Red and brown ink, 17.9x25.1cm. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.|
|Michelangelo. Nude, Study for the Battle of Cascina. Red chalk. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.|
|Michelangelo. A Male Nude, c. 1504-5. Black chalk, heightened with lead white, 40.4x22.5cm. The Teyler Museum, Haarlem.|
|Michelangelo. Male Nude seen from the back with a flag staff, c. 1504. Black chalk, heightened with white. Albertina, Vienna.|
|Michelangelo. A Male Nude, c.1504-5. Black chalk, heightened with lead white, 40.4x25.8cm. The Teyler Museum, Haarlem.|
|Michelangelo. A seated male nude twisting around, c. 1504-5. Pen and brown ink, brown and grey wash, heightened with lead white (partly discoloured) over lead stylus, 42.1x28.7cm. The British Museum, London.|
|Michael Whynot. A seated female nude looking skyward, c. 2012. Red chalk. Collection of the artist.|
Is it better to draw from nature or from the imagination? This question, or some form of it, has hounded artists for centuries: realism or constructionism, what you see or what you know.
I believe that when the question is asked in this manner, there can never be a definitive answer. I believe that both approaches are valid and, indeed, each must rely upon the other if our drawings are to be anything more than simply realistic or, alternatively, lacking a solid grounding in nature.
By way of example, I have included several of Michelangelo's studies for the Battle of Cascina, a fresco he was commissioned to paint in the Hall of the Great Council in Florence in 1504, along side Leonardo da Vinci's Battle of Anghiari. Unfortunately, neither of these frescos was ever completed, although full size cartoons were created.
It is obvious that Michelangelo was drawing purely from his imagination in the top two studies. He was exploring concepts for the composition, testing forms and rhythms, and making decisions concerning major points of interest and where the eye will flow.
In the following five figure studies he was likely working from a combination of the two approaches. His initial conceptions for the figures would have sprung from his imagination but, at some point in the process, he likely used a live model to work out areas where he was unclear as to certain anatomical details. Notice, however, the extreme twist in the 7th(seated) figure. Michelangelo has pushed this pose into a nearly impossible position. But so great was his understanding of form, that he was able to make the position wholly plausible. He likely believed, as do I, that an artist must be accurate in their draftsmanship, but never at the expense of clarity.
Michelangelo's full size cartoon for The Battle of Cascina was remarkable, according to all accounts, and artists from all around Florence flocked to see it. It was said to be life changing for many. Unfortunately, the cartoon was destroyed a decade after its completion (c. 1505) by those same artists.
The final drawing included is my own study of a woman looking skyward. It was drawn totally from the imagination. If I were to take it further, toward a finished work, I would have a model take the pose so that I could work out some unclear details.
If a draftsman hopes to advance their abilities, they must draw from life every day, but also from the imagination; the problem with embracing nature too tightly is that it is often difficult to let go. Nature should never confine the imagination, but free it.
If you understand the human form -truly understand it - in all its wondrous complexity and intricacy, can see it twisting in space or flipped upon its head, then whether you are drawing from life or from your own imagination should yield similar results. The key difference being that when you acquire the ability to draw from the imagination you can shape nature to convey your conceptions.
Michelangelo said that a man doesn't paint with his hands but with his brain. I would submit that neither does a man see with his eyes. These are both functions of the mind - that elusive spring where inspiration bubbles up and we have but to cup it in our hands and drink. Art, like life, begins at conception.